The Poynter Institute has released a new study, “Eyetrack III – What You Most Need to Know“, which “observed 46 people for one hour as their eyes followed mock news websites and real multimedia content”. While this is by no means the first such research, it is very interesting as it presents some findings which go against the accepted norms of Web design – and are often the exact opposite of standard print practices.
Gone are the days of the simple Z path
One of the first things you will see in this report is a fascinating graphic depicting the average eye movement of a user scanning a page on the mock Web site. While, the overall pattern still confirms to a loose Z shape, there are some odd twists and turns. The next graphic provides a good visual break down of zones of interest/priority, and while it isn’t too surprising that the top left hand corner is the most important spot, the overall breakdown is informative, and a bit different than previous studies.
Type size is important, but not how we thought
“Smaller type encourages focused viewing behavior (that is, reading the words), while larger type promotes lighter scanning.” Whoa! Hrrrm… That goes against standard print conventions, but, come to think of it, the concept makes perfect sense in the Web medium. Another interesting note regarding font size:
> Particularly interesting was people’s behavior when there were headlines and blurbs used on homepages. Eyetrack III test participants tended to view both the headline and blurb when the headline was bold and the same size as blurb text and immediately preceded the blurb on the same line.
Write good if you want people to read your stuff
Reaffirming the results of previous studies, Eyetrack III notes that stories with shorter paragraphs performed much better than those those of medium length (45 – 50 words). It still pays to be concise.
Embedded photos in stories are not viewed first
Another surprise: “test subjects typically looked at text elements before their eyes landed on an accompanying photo, just like on homepages… the reverse behavior (photos first) occurred in previous print eyetracking studies.”
Apparently, larger images garner significantly more viewing time. So, we as designers and developers may want to rethink our use of thumbnail images. While you are at it, link images wherever possible, as users have a tendency to click on them.
Animation has its place
While many people recoil from animation, unless they are viewing an entertainment site, the study notes “new, unfamiliar, conceptual information was more accurately recalled when participants received it in a multimedia graphic format”. So, the judicious use of animation can go a long way in demonstrating a complex idea.
Take the time to read through the article, I bet it will shift your thinking and design patterns. While it was focused on news sites, those of us building sites for other types of organizations (retail/catalog in my case) can apply the findings in our work as well.